Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen once described the concept of community as a ship, saying that, “everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” Set in the context of the work in which it was stated, he clearly viewed community like a flock of birds—collectively moving together as one, though at any particular moment a single member may be in the lead. It’s an involved concept that refers to a rather complex set of relationships. It’s no coincidence that the late Mr. Ibsen is known to many as the father of prose drama, having created works that were as heralded for their depth as they were for their undertones of indecency and scandal.

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, however, expressed the stance that “It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual.” Though he was seen as somewhat of a radical in his time, his penchant for equivalency carved out his legacy as an important pillar of social reform. One can draw strong parallels between Mr. Bentham’s insights and a Skillful perspective of the way today’s communities might function best, but this is not often the case. There are exceptions, however, of positive examples of how our society might function.

Among these are the 12 step programs founded by Bill Wilson. I recently had the occasion to sit in on an Al-Anon meeting and was exposed to the way in which this community operates. As I observed the men and women in that room—the balance of understanding and faith that they so gracefully held—I realized that the strength of their network of support would not have been possible if there was a hierarchy of leadership in the room. Indeed, there is no hierarchy of leadership in the entire organization. Al-Anon, like the other programs related to it, have been created to be locally based and led by the individuals in the room who face each other throughout. Yes, they follow certain principles and are guided by rules of a sort, but the dominant force that contributes to its success is the accountability in the rooms in which its members meet. There is no behind the scene zipped up chain of command, even one that’s well intended. I was impressed by the depth of their community and the way they displayed a passive but confident manner of operating. It is a level of modesty that’s difficult to attain; one which employs a resilient sense of will, and the result is a responsibility that isn’t compromised by ego. I remembered then that with the absence of organized leadership comes the absence of its vices: corruption, favouritism, jealousy, certain forms of stress; and in this case the opportunity to hide behind a veil of anonymity, not just as it relates to their addiction but in their roles with one another.

While modern society has many benefits, this is one aspect of it that’s been left behind. Sure, there is a dignity in taking on a specific position within our social configuration. But instead, if we operate in a manner that gives the lay community as much of a voice as anyone else, we’re creating more of an opportunity to express the position of the masses. Without this, we’re operating with a lack of a coveted balance, and perpetuating the absence of meaning in our interactions. And while many in that Al-Anon meeting have undoubtedly been affected by the spiritual crisis going on in the lives of loved ones around them, I have every bit of faith that they will find the nourishment that is required to overcome the demons, just as they defy the toxic structure of the cultural deprivation and organizational deficiencies that contribute to all of our suffering.

Let us remind ourselves that we can take valuable lessons from those who are struggling with challenges, and operate with the light provided by a group of individuals who in  seeking sobriety have found one very important aspect of health—community.

Michael Finkelstein, M.D., is the former Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Chief of the Departments of Medicine and Integrative Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York. After 20 years in the allopathic medical community, he left these positions to pursue a more intuitive and holistic approach to his work, as the founder and director of SunRaven, a wellness center in Bedford, NY. Sign up for Dr. Finkelstein’s bi-monthly “Moon News” newsletter. You can also visit his site, blog, Twitter and Facebook.

photo courtesy sgarbe84